Fat loss is simple. Not easy. Simple.
For the most part, we all have a pretty good understanding of what we need to focus on in order to make progress (or at least if you have been following me for some time you SHOULD have!).
However, despite the simplicity of knowing you need to be in a calorie deficit and eating enough protein, it often isn’t easy. Below are 4 of the most common pitfalls I see with clients I have dealt with over the past 10 years as a coach. I’m sure there are at least a couple you can relate to….
Mistake #1. Under-Eating Protein
When clients first come to me they are often surprised when I tell them how much protein I would like them to try and eat. There has rarely been a client who has come to me who is already eating an adequate amount of protein. The common pattern is: -
A diet too high in poor quality carbohydrates (especially poor quality, high sugar ones) and fats (especially trans-fats coming from highly processed foods)
A diet too low in protein, vegetables and water
So without going into any great detail, most beginner clients can make really great progress by drinking more water, eating more protein and vegetables and as a result reducing carbohydrates and liquid calories. Once a client starts to advance then more detailed approaches can be used, but quite often this can work wonders in the short-term.
So, why is protein so important I hear you ask?
Well, I have written about the importance of protein previously, but there are 3 main reasons why protein should be a priority for fat loss: -
An insufficient protein intake will impair someone’s ability to build muscle. This is bad news whether your goals are to build muscle or lose fat because having more lean muscle mass is important to both processes.
Higher Thermic Effect of Food (TEF): The thermic effect of food relates to the amount of energy required to digest and absorb food. Of the 3 macronutrients, protein has the highest TEF. In practical terms this means that your body will expend more energy digesting and absorbing a high protein diet than a low protein diet, aiding in fat loss.
Satiety: Protein is also the most satiating of the 3 macronutrients. This is excellent news for anyone wanting to lose fat, as having a high protein diet will keep them feeling fuller for longer, reducing the chance of snacking and over-eating.
So, how much protein should you be eating?
Recommended Intakes for strength training individuals is 1.6-1.8g per kg of bodyweight. Therefore for an 80kg person this relates to a daily intake of between 128g-144g of protein per day. There is no research to suggest more muscle can be built with intakes higher than 1.8g/kg. For example, Hoffman et al (2006) found no support for protein intakes greater than 1.6-1.8g/kg in collegiate strength & power athletes for altering body composition.
Instances where it can be argued that a slightly higher intake may be optimal is in the case of beginner trainees embarking on strength training. In this scenario you could bring intakes up to 2.0g/kg of bodyweight. This is because beginners can expect to build large amounts of muscle mass when embarking on a strength training program.
Vegetarians will generally need an intake of 2.4g/kg of protein per day. This is due to the lower quality of pant-based protein which means less of the protein is absorbed by the body.
For the average gym goer who isn't looking to maximise muscle mass and just wants to lose a little weight, intakes of 1.2g/kg-1.4g/kg will be more than sufficient in maintain lean mass whilst losing body fat.
Moral of the Story: Increase your protein intake by consuming foods such as meat, fish and dairy.
Mistake #2. Not Being Honest About Food Intake
This is another topic I have tackled previously. There are 4 main reasons why people eat more than they realise, which are: -
1) Hidden Calories: Some foods are absolutely laden with calories we didn’t really know were there. This factor is becoming increasingly common as we (as a society) rely more than ever on eating out, eating on the go and ordering food online. We are preparing very little food ourselves, meaning we have less and less control over what is going into our food. This is common when consuming sauces or eating out and not preparing your own food. For example, if a restaurant uses the word ‘buttery’ in the name of the dish it will average around 102 more calories (Wansink, 2014). Anything described with the word ‘crispy’ will have 131 more calories in it (Wansink, 2014).
Pop Quiz (answers at the end):
A) How many calories in a Starbucks Grande Latte?
B) How many calories in a Big Mac Meal (medium Fries and Coke)?
C) How many calories in a Subway Chicken Classic?
2) Social Eating: Research has shown that people tend to eat more when dining out with other people. This is often due to the fact we are distracted when talking and interacting with others, such that we are less mindful about how much food we are actually eating. Another reason is that we are more likely to drink alcohol when socialising with friends/work colleagues etc.
3) We tend to eat more calories when there is a greater variety of foods, and more specifically textures and flavours, available to us (think 'buffet'!). Stephan Guyenet (2017) has coined the term 'Sensory Specific Satiety' to describe the notion of fullness in relation to foods that have similar sensory properties (sweet, salty, sour etc). This explains why we are happy to eat dessert, even after a large meal that has met all our caloric needs.
When food reward and variety increase, so does food intake.
4) It has been shown in research that when people are asked to self-report food intake they tend to under-report, often by as much as 30% (Ferrari et al, 2002). Now, for the most part this isn't about lying. This is usually due to the following reasons:
Poor re-call: Often we try to keep a food log by logging all the foods we ate at the end of the day. However, this is a notoriously bad way of trying to track calorie intake because our re-call is often very poor.
Food label inaccuracies: Even if we are diligently tracking all of our calories using food labels to judge how many calories we are consuming, there are often inaccuracies with these labels, meaning we cannot truly know how many calories were in that pack of chips we just bought.
Unconscious Eating: Many of us don't eat purely for hunger. Often it is habit. Or boredom. How many people have associations with certain days and situations and a certain type of food? Eating in front of the television is one of the best examples of when we mindlessly eat. Watching TV makes us over-eat for the following reasons:
-We often eat out of habit and not hunger.
-We don't pay attention to how much we eat
-We pace ourselves by the show.
However, it is not just TV - anything distracting and enjoyable keeps you eating mindlessly longer than you otherwise would.
Many of us also keep snack food within very close proximity at home or at work. For example, Wansink (2014) found that the average office worker has 476 calories’ worth of food in their desk within arms reach. People who had sweets/lollies in or on their desk reported weighing 15.4 pounds (7kgs) more than those who didn’t.
Moral of the story: if you think you are eating the correct amount of calories to lose weight, but you aren’t actually losing weight, chances are you are actually eating more than you realise.
Mistake #3. Being a Perfectionist Monday-Friday
Ok, so this has to be THE most common pattern I see with clients, whether working in one-on-one or group settings. The weekend tends to be the thing that stops clients making progress. The thing with this pattern is that it is not immediately obvious why this might be the case:
“I was perfect from Monday to Friday”
However, it is extremely easy to do a lot of damage in just a couple of days, especially if you are eating out and/or socialising, which will often involve alcohol. Here is a common scenario that I see. Let’s assume you are wanting to lose body fat. You log your calories for a week and establish your maintenance calories are 2,500 calories/day (or 17,500 calories/week). So, you decide to put yourself in a 20% calorie deficit, meaning you are now aiming to eat 2,000 calories/day. But, your week ends up looking something like the following: -
Friday: 2,500 (after-work drinks)
Saturday: 3,700 (brunch with friends, dinner in the evening with partner)
Sunday: 3,950 (woke up slightly hung-over, lunch out with friends, take-away in the evening)
So, as you can see from the example above, Monday to Friday was great and the client was on track to make some really great progress for the week. However, the weekend came along and wiped out much of the deficit that was created throughout the week. The weekly calorie goal was 14,000 calories (2,000/day) to achieve fat loss. However, in the example above the weekly total was 18,150. However, for the majority of the week the client was eating as they were supposed to.
If you’re thinking, ‘yeah but there’s no way I would eat that much on a weekend’, think again. It is VERY easy to over-consume by 1,000 or more calories when you combine eating food out, social situations, alcohol etc.
So, what can you do to avoid these scenarios occurring?
Create a larger calorie deficit during the week to off-set some of the increase at weekends - so instead of eating 2,000 from Monday to Friday you could aim for 1,800, which would allow an extra 1,000 calories over the weekend
Only eat out once per day over the weekend. So, if you’re going to meet friends out for breakfast, you are going to have the rest of your meals at home. Try not to eat out for breakfast, lunch and dinner on a Saturday and Sunday.
Try to accurately track calories to ensure you aren’t going too far off track. I very often have clients who will diligently track their calories between Monday and Friday but won’t track at all over the weekend. Try to keep a track of what you are consuming so you can moderate intake if you have to.
Shift your mind-set so that rather than seeing the weekend as the end of your week, see Saturday as the start of it. This may make you totally re-think how you approach the weekend. Rather than ‘I’ve worked hard all week, I deserve a treat’, you now starting thinking ‘I want to start this week on the right foot’. Try it, see if you can approach the weekend with a different mind-set.
Be active: If you are going to increase calorie intake over the weekend, try to ensure you do some training so that the increased calorie expenditure will help to off-set the increased calorie intake.
Moral of the story: The weekend can have a huge impact on whether you lose weight/fat or not. Do not neglect how important it is to maintain some semblance of control over the weekend as it is very easy to un-do all of your hard work during the week.
Mistake #4. Only Using Scale Weight as a Barometer of Progress
This is something I have addressed previously. However, I feel like this is an issue people struggle with because oftentimes people have an emotional attachment to the number on the scale, despite how illogical this is. My view is this: By all means use the scale to monitor progress, but please do not use this as the only means to track progress. Other methods you should consider using include: -
Progress Pictures - Like all measurements, consistency of measurement is key with progress pictures. You should use the same spot, with the camera the same distance, wearing the same clothing. Different lighting can greatly alter the way your body appears.
Tape measurements - During a diet, a decrease in circumference generally indicates body fat loss. The important point to note here is that measurements can decrease even in the absence of a change in scale weight. This is because muscle is denser and takes up less space than body fat. So someone who is gaining muscle and dropping body fat may see no change on the scale but reductions in tape measurements.
Body fat assessment - There are a number of different ways of estimating body fat, including DEXA scans, skin-fold measures and ultra-sound. Measuring body fat, to mind, is extremely useful, as losing fat is what the majority of my clients want to do. I often have clients lose little scale weight, but see significant changes in body fat. This occurs very often in beginners who have just started to train for the first time. This is where you get what we like to call ‘newbie gains’ which is a relatively fast adaptation to training and increase in muscle mass during the first 6-12 months of training.
The figure above is a common example of what I am talking about. A male client within his first 12 months of training. As you can see, his scale weight starts of 100.4kg in the first reading and actually goes up by 1kg to 101.4kg in the 3rd reading. However, as you can see his body fat % actually decreases by 4.2% over that time period. However, it would be easy to see how someone may get disheartened if their goal was to lose fat, but they see their weight increase. In this scenario, the increased weight came from an increase in lean body mass, which has occurred because of the new training stimulus.
Clothing Fit - This is similar to the use of tape measurements. You can use specific types of clothing to determine how it is fitting. If it is fitting looser then body composition is likely to be improving. This is often one of the things clients notice. “I’ve gone down 2 notches on my belt” or “I tried on a shirt that I haven’t been able to wear for the past 2 years and it fits easily now”. Having your clothes fit again ca be one of the biggest motivators in my experience.
Moral of the story: Don’t solely rely on scale weight to determine progress.
Starbucks Grande Latte: 230 Calories
Big Mac Meal: 1,080 Calories
Subway Chicken Classic: 348 Calories